Cold hands. Sweaty pits. Pre-show shits.
Celebrities aren’t the only ones who get stage fright. Plenty of gifted, seasoned improvisers suffer from pre-show anxiety. TJ Jagodowski spoke movingly about his battle with it in this 2008 interview.
Me, I had panic attacks onstage.
I’d be fine in the green room, OK in the opening, but as soon as I stepped into a scene my legs would start shaking. Sometimes I’d hear a ringing sound, then the stage would turn white at the edges. Meanwhile my scene partner was no doubt trying to interpret my glassy-eyed stare and statue-like stance as a character choice. Sometimes I’d try and get to a chair, but most of the time I just stood there praying to God for someone to edit.
If you feel anxious or shaky before (or during) shows, here are some proven techniques that can help.
We’re a nation of shallow breathers, and anxiousness often results in shortness of breath. Breath Awareness is a simple yet powerful exercise you can do anywhere.
Find a place where you can sit comfortably for a few minutes. Close your eyes and notice whatever is being experienced in the moment: sounds, physical sensations, thoughts or feelings, without trying to do anything about them. Continue to do this for a minute or so, allowing yourself to settle down.
Now bring your attention to your breath. Simply notice the breath as it moves in and out of your nose, as the body inhales and exhales. Notice how the breath moves automatically, without any effort from you. Don’t try to change your breathing; just breathe normally and observe it.
Notice all the details of the experience of breathing: the feeling of the air moving in and out of the nose, the way the body moves as it breathes.
You’ll find your mind will wander away from the breath. That’s OK. When you notice your attention is no longer on your breathing, just bring your attention back to it.
Let all your experiences — thoughts, emotions, body sensations, awareness of sounds and smells — come and go in the background of your awareness of the breath.
Just doing this can lower your heart rate and calm you.
If you don’t have time to do this exercise (say, you’re backstage and they’re announcing your team), you can always do basic deep breathing.
Just inhale and hold the breath for a count of five, then exhale slowly for five counts. Repeat five times, or as often as you need to.
Talk To The Hands
Many performers’ hands are like ice before shows, and some experience cold hands or “cold sweats” in day-to-day life as well.
For years we blamed Cameron’s cold hands on poor circulation, air conditioning, or low body fat. Hands and feet are bony, after all. It makes sense they’d be colder, right?
Then we discovered the connection between feeling cold and feeling anxious.
Wearing gloves, rubbing your hands together, and holding them under hot water just aren’t very effective. The good news is, the following method is.
Sit or stand someplace quiet, and take a few deep breaths. Become aware of your heart beating, experiencing the feeling of it in your chest.
Once you can sense your heart, move your awareness to your hands. Concentrate on them (look at them if it helps), and feel the pulse of your heartbeat in your hands. Now introduce the intention to increase the blood flow to your hands. Just have the thought in your mind, “I’m sending more blood to my hands.”
If your hands are very cold or stiff, this may take a few minutes. Relax and stay focused. As you do, you’ll notice warmth, tingling, or other sensations in your hands. Introduce the intention of increasing warmth, so your hands become warmer and warmer. Feel the warmth as your intention alone increases the blood flow.
By doing this on a regular basis, Cameron went from having icicle fingers to me nicknaming him “Hot Hands.” Even in winter, when I grab his hand I know it’ll be warm, if not downright toasty.
Meditate, Feel Great
I know what you’re thinking. “Unh-uh. Not for me. I’m not into chanting mantras and dressing like Yanni.”
Well, relax. These days there are dozens of great guided meditations available online. Meditating for even a few minutes before a show can free you of the pressure we often put on ourselves to perform. The Breath Awareness exercise is actually a short meditation.
Some of our personal favourite meditations are Mary Maddux’s Ease of Being – Guided Meditations and Eckart Tolle’s Practicing the Power of Now. You can also use an app like Headspace, available on iTunes.
Don’t Fight Fear, Embrace It
Perhaps the thing that’s helped me and Cameron the most is something called The Sedona Method.
Instead of fighting emotions like fear, which only creates more resistance, it teaches you how to allow what you’re feeling, so you can let it go.
Cameron suffered for years from Generalised Anxiety Disorder. It ruled his every waking moment, and made something as simple as going to the store to buy groceries a gauntlet of pain and fear. He credits Sedona – along with improv – with giving him back his life. In fact, his life is more joyful now than anything he’d experienced before.
There are many different techniques for practicing Sedona, but one that I use quite often is a Holistic Release. If you find yourself getting nervous at any point, ask yourself,
“Can I feel as closed, and as tense, and as constricted (or anxious, or whatever else you want to call what you’re feeling – they’re all just labels anyway) as I do?”
Don’t try to tense up your body more than it already is; just allow whatever sensations you’re experiencing to be here, in this moment.
Once you’ve welcomed the feeling or feelings, ask yourself,
“Can I feel as open, and as relaxed, and as calm as I do?”
You’ll find that even when your muscles are tense and your heart is racing, there’s a part of you that is “outside” all of the tension. Allow yourself to tap into that feeling of calm. Then continue to ask yourself the two questions, alternating back and forth, allowing yourself to feel all the sensations that are present. As you do, you’ll notice that the two extremes become less and less, until they both feel pretty much the same.
Sedona is simple, powerful, and you can do it anywhere, anytime, even with your eyes open. We highly recommend the audio program, because Hale Dwoskin, the co-creator, is so much fun to listen to.
Sedona’s not just for dealing with anxiety, either. It’s great for allowing yourself just to be, in every area of your life. You can read more about it here.
For more information on dealing with anxiety, check Cameron’s classes and blog at playwithfireimprov.com.
I love these suggestions. I have a course called Peak Performance, which I brought back to my improv, after developing exercises to help elite sports people in our Olympic program to overcome off-field adversities. Mindfulness was key, as per the above. I was interested, however, in the fact that all improvisers like to warm-up differently, (or may encounter unexpected tasks whilst they ought to be preparing themselves), and it led us to the realisation that it doesn’t matter so much what activity you actually do pre-show – just that you are mindful (at performance level) whilst doing it. In this way, you shift the beginning of the ‘show’ back to an earlier moment, and curtain-up just becomes the ‘next’ thing you mindfully do, rather than the big, scary ‘first’ thing. We can do warm-up exercises until we’re exhausted, but if we then stop and wait in the wings for five minutes, we can still go into our heads, if we are not mindful, so it was the mindfulness, itself, that proved most important. We applied similar principles to being in the wings or on the side of the stage, mid-longform, or waiting on-stage for the next game or scene, mid-shortform, or even just out-of-focus mid-scene. I hope that helps a couple of people, and thanks for the great post, above!
This is all great stuff, Nick! Thanks so much for sharing your insights with others.